Unions Fill Power Vacuum at Obscure California Regional Government
On June 7, 2016, voters in nine California counties in the San Francisco Bay Area will vote on a proposal (Measure AA) to annually assess a $12 tax on every property parcel. This tax would apply equally to each parcel, ranging in assessed property value from Google headquarters in Mountain View to a $30,000 trailer in Vallejo.
The tax money would go to the obscure Oakland-based San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, established in 2008 by state law as a regional agency. Regional governments are increasingly popular in California, in part because state laws such as the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (Assembly Bill 32) and Senate Bill 975 (2008) are compelling local governments to collaborate on public policy.
Governed by officials appointed by local governments, these regional governments often lack press oversight and public accountability. That creates a power vacuum that groups eager for taxpayer funding can fill for their own advantage. Construction unions have seized the opportunity.
In the case of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, union Building Trades Councils of the nine affected counties want to control future construction contracts funded by this parcel tax. On February 24, 2016, the board of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority considered a policy requiring construction companies to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions as a condition of working on contracts greater than $100,000 funded by the proposed parcel tax.
San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority governing board gets ready to praise Project Labor Agreements at its February 24, 2016 meeting.
In front of a full room of union officials from the entire region, almost every Bay Restoration Authority board member expressed strong support for a government mandate for construction contractors to obtain their workforce (including apprentices) from the union hiring hall and make all employee fringe benefit payments to union health care and pension funds. One board member dared to assert that the parcel tax was actually about Bay restoration and not labor unions. She also questioned how the union deal would affect volunteer organizations. But in the end, she voted with the rest of the board to proceed with continued development of the Project Labor Agreement policy.
Objections came from construction business associations, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Contra Costa (County) Taxpayers Association, Ducks Unlimited, a construction company based in Sonoma that specializes in wetlands restoration projects, and one ordinary citizen from El Sobrante. The board voted to create an ad hoc committee to work with the Santa Clara Valley Water District and Ducks Unlimited to neutralize their opposition to the Project Labor Agreement.
Why is this regional agency implementing a Project Labor Agreement policy? Some of the union love is ideological and some of it is based on politics back at the local governments of the appointed board members. Much of it is presumably intended to convince the unions to provide major financial and organizational help to the Measure AA campaign to convince voters to approve the parcel tax.
Union campaign assistance is needed because of one major obstacle to voter passage of the $12 annual parcel tax: under Proposition 13 (approved by state voters in 1978), a two-thirds supermajority of all voters in the nine Bay Area counties must approve the tax increase. This threshold will be difficult to exceed, even in a region that strongly supports environmental causes. Both the Left and the Right have reasons to reject this tax.
In addition, the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority has a logistical challenge in putting one tax measure on the ballot in nine different counties. This is an unprecedented effort that has provoked many legal questions and required significant interaction with county election officials. (Unlike the opposition to the Measure AA parcel tax, the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority has taxpayer funds to get answers to legal questions.)
Big corporations (such as Pacific Gas and Electric) are eagerly supporting this regressive property tax, as it gives them an image of environmental activism while putting the burden of paying for the restoration on ordinary homeowners who had nothing to do with degrading San Francisco Bay in the first place. Nevertheless, union activism will also be needed to overcome voter resistance to sending their tax money to an obscure agency in Oakland.
A Project Labor Agreement locks in that union support. But could it backfire on the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority?
Ironically, the board’s decision to give unions monopoly control over the construction contract workforce has inspired the development of organized opposition to the parcel tax. It also creates for voters a clearly identifiable example of insider politics, favoritism for special interest groups, and fiscal irresponsibility.
Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.